Russia and Accusations of War Crimes Mounting

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev praised Tuesday his forces for restoring peace and law to the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. But the pictures from embattled Gori and other Georgian cities confirm the reports that the Russian air force had repeatedly targeted non-military sites, killing tens of civilians.

Speaking in front of cameras, President Medvedev said Tuesday that “the aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized.” He insisted that the Russian forces had stopped ethnic cleansing carried out by the Georgians. Eyewitnesses of the conflict, however, give a different version of the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

Foreigners returning from Georgia speak of corpses decaying on the streets as most cities bordering South Ossetia have been deserted. “The Russians first bombed military facilities. Now they are bombing everything,” said a Polish student who arrived back in Warsaw on Monday. She was in a group of 70 European Union citizens who left Georgia on board a plane provided by the Polish government.

Even though President Medvedev said Tuesday that the military activity was over, fighting in Georgia continued. A Polish journalist wrote from Gori that, at the same time as the president was announcing his decision, Russian air fighters were dropping bombs on the city’s living areas. In one of such raids, a Dutch cameraman was killed; a German news agency identified him as Stan Storimans, 39. His colleague was seriously wounded in the legs and remains in a Georgian hospital.

Some accuse Russia of committing war crimes. Andrzej Meller, who works for a Polish Catholic weekly, said Tuesday that he had found in the Georgian city of Gori the remnants of cluster bombs, allegedly dropped by Russian air fighters, and which are banned by international conventions. According to Meller, the bombs were used to destroy civilian cites.

“It seems that the Russians dropped those bombs on the city center – let’s repeat it once again: on the city center, not on military facilities,” Meller wrote in his blog. The cluster bomb is considered one of the deadliest weapons as it explodes into hundreds of tiny pieces that can kill people located hundreds of feet from the main target.

On Wednesday, despite the ceasefire, Russian forces were seen in Gori. A Polish journalist in the city claimed the soldiers had been transported from Chechnya, another secessionist province where Russian troops have been accused of committing ethnic cleansing. In addition, French and Polish sources reported that a considerable number of Russian troops and tanks were moving further south, towards the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Uncertainty can be felt everywhere in Georgia. People here fear the scenario from Chechnya, where the Russian military killed as many as 100,000 civilians and displaced another 500,000 in the 1990s. A Polish student, who had stayed in Georgia to write her PhD thesis, said on her return to Poland: “I have seen dead people on the streets. Russians know no mercy.”